Shopping at size 24:’ The sales assistant shakes her head at me’

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The high street can be intimidating if youre not mannequin-shaped. Jonatha Kottler navigates rude staff and empty rails to find her perfect fit

If I were scouting places for my nightmares, Im pretty sure a fluorescent-lit cubicle with multiple mirrors and me standing in the middle, shivering in my underpants, would be an excellent selection. I am the opposite of a clothes horse.( What is that? A clothes pedestrian ?)

My wardrobe was of not even fleeting fear when my husband, 16 -year-old son and I decided to leave Albuquerque, New Mexico, and move to Amsterdam in the winter of 2012. We were looking for change and escapade, so we got rid of most of our stuff and moved, taking 38 boxes and three cats. I had travelled abroad before and knew that my size would be an issue. I am an American sizing 20( UK 24 ), also known as plus size or even women size, both vague and euphemistic ways of saying fat. In one store, I fitted a size 20 on the bottom and 22 on the top. Plus sizing implies that there is some platonic ideal size out there, and that I was beyond it. Womens size implies that fat girls are women and that other women are … not?

So I stocked up on clothes for all of their own families before we departed, buying new jeans, underwear and pyjamas at my favourite, reliable superstore: Target. I couldnt have imagined, though, when we arrived in Holland, how little selection there would be in our sizings. The shops themselves were tiny( and very specialised ), and I didnt have the vocabulary to ask where to go for what I needed.

I was also embarrassed by my weight, and felt conspicuous, like the only fat person in the country. It wasnt the first time I had felt fat, but it was the first time I felt that everyone else was thin the Dutch are nearly uniformly tall and slender, and there was absolutely nothing in my sizing. The Dutch shop assistants also tended to be very frank and would say, You must be here to buy a gift for someone else or, You must eat a lot to be so big. I always said that if I ever considered a larger woman in the street, I would stop her and ask, Hey girl, where do you shop? But I never insured one.

Im not unaware of the space that I take up in the world( and were I ever to forget about it, there is always person ready to remind me ). People seem to enjoy telling me that obesity is the most dangerous health hazard, but they say it in a way that stimulates it clear this is not really about my health. Its a route of saying: Youre disgusting. Put down your fork.

I understand the health risks of being big. I have lost and gained weight on many occasions, and I support anyone who wants to improve her health. But it is exhausting to feel as if your value to society is less the more you weigh, and I am tired of having to defend my body to strangers. I would simply like to be able to buy clothes to wear while I go about my everyday life.

After our stint in Holland, we decided to relocate to Scotland, where my son was going to university. Before the move, we had a brief journey to the States, and I drove my rental automobile to Target as soon as the jetlag wore off. Target has everything from clothing to automobile accessories, and sometimes a full-sized grocery store. I have always enjoyed slipping clothes shopping into other errands, picking up a latte at the in-house Starbucks and filling up my red cart. This time, I piled it high with all the things I supposed I might need in my new country( and which I had had to live without for so long ).

In the US, large-size clothes are often in a separate department, or there are shops that sell only clothes for larger females, such as Avenue and Lane Bryant.( Lane Bryant has more than 800 stores in 48 of the 50 states. Some people love them, and then theres a friend of mine who calls them Lame Giant .) Sometimes, this division into larger and smaller seems like a big-girl ghetto; sometimes, its nice not to have to move through rack after rack of clothes that were not attained for me.

A lifetime of trial and error has taught me a few things. I know that a store such as Gap might stock a couple of larger-size items, but Banana Republic, for example, will label a shirt that is no larger than a medium One Size and call it a day( though many shops offer larger sizes online ). Occasionally, Id try some place new, but largely I received it easier to stick to places I knew I liked and had things for me( hence my devotion to Target ).

Two years since arriving in Scotland, life suits us much better than Amsterdam. The people are friendly. We dont own a automobile, and because Edinburgh is such a pedestrian city, its easy for us to get our 10,000 steps a day. I run a reading and writing class, my husband can walk to his chore, and my son isnt far away from his university.

We search the racks and stacks for anything in sizing 22 -2 4. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

But my jeans are wearing out, in that particular route that larger girls know to dread. All the walk-to has turned the exact place where my thighs touch into a threadbare cobweb of denim.( Decorator of the world, I implore you: apply your ingenuity to this issue .) The carry of clothes I bought two years ago isnt going to last much longer, so last month I decided to brave the British high street for the very first time.

Before I made the stores, I enlist help from two writing friends( neither of them as large as me, but not size XXS, either ). Siobhan is a gorgeous, stylish Edinburgher who usually turns to vintage-style clothes to express herself. Felicity is freshly gotta go back to Glasgow, where she went to uni, and wears an eclectic mix of sparkles and bold patterns with edgy leather boots and jacket, and, it turns out, sews many of her own clothes because she has the savor and talent( plus they fit better ).

On a rainy morning, we head for Princes Street in Edinburgh, armed with a website proving American to British sizing conversions. My expectations are low; the only goal I have is to leave with a pair of jeans, and Ive defined myself a budget of 100 for the entire trip.

We stop in at Urban Outfitters, where I am by far the oldest person in the room. The female I ask for larger sizes whisperings into a microphone at her ear, like a secret service agent, before shaking her head at me there are seemingly no words for her to express sizes bigger than large.

At John Lewis we walk through museum-like exhibits of clothes in every style, each one offering a woman a different way to be. I name them as I browse: Mother-of-the-Bride Every Day; Bohemian Rebel; Downton Abbey 2017. There are T-shirts that cost more than 100 and jeans that have been artfully distressed, as if for a Hollywood actor. Felicity asks a woman briskly folding things where there is plus sizings. She says there arent different sizes that big in the shop at all. We go to the haberdashery department, where Felicity helps me choice some gorgeous fabric, promising to induce me a dress herself.

Having endured my rhapsodic description of Target shopping, the girls suggest that Marks& Spencer might be a good bet. We search the racks and stacks for anything in size 22 -2 4 but find nothing at all. A gaggle of women garmented in M& S smocks are very friendly but merely wave vaguely in the direction of the clothes, telling me that there are sizes out there. They add that they can order anything in, which is helpful, but I actually need to try something on. We return to the racks of jeans. I cant find anything larger than an 18, so I decide to try them on, to calculate( by how high I can pull them up my legs) which size to order. I take two pairs: one regular, one relaxed and both ankle-grazing length( since jeans in my size tend to be designed for a woman approximately two feet taller than me ). Siobhan prefers a patterned, geometric skirt and a shirt dress, and Felicity a sweater and slinky, sparkly dress. We head for the dreaded changing rooms.

Most of the women I consulted for advice before this shopping journey( friends and Twitter followers) avoid changing rooms wholly, preferring to shop online. Most sites for larger sizings go up to at the least a British sizing 32, and there is a lot more variety. They tell me about Evans( the closest to a British equivalent of Lane Bryant ), Asos Curve, Marisota, Curvissa, SimplyBe, Yours Clothing and lots more.

Meanwhile, social media has done its bit to show that there are many ways to be bigger and fashionable. The growing body-positive movement has Instagram stars such as @bodyposipanda, who posts untouched images of herself, belly rolls and all; and Jessamyn Stanley, a yoga instructor who demonstrates that you can be large and athletic. Nike are now get in on the act, launching a plus sizing line( ultimately ). How things have changed. I recollect my mother shopping at the one store in township that had big clothes in the early 1980 s, and it was called Catherines Stout Shop not exactly designed to build her self-esteem.

Lately, I have been engaging in some body positivity myself. Ive attained the decision to stop listening to other people judgments. In Holland, where people were most cruel( and thats saying something, because I went to high school in America ), I began to interrupt any nasty remarks with, Dont talk to me. Now I try to say that again to anyone who wants to control me by judging my body( even myself ).


Back behind the closed door of the M& S changing room, in my own personal nightmare, I undress, trying to avoid eye linked with myself. Swiftly, with the deliberate movements of a condemned woman, I pull on the relaxed pair, expecting to hit a roadblock at my hips; but to my astonish, they slip up and zip. The hem of the jeans is at my ankle. What sorcery is this?

I step out of the cubicle to where Siobhan is modelling a shirt dress that is miles too long. I ask Felicity how her dress was. Ugh! she says, presenting me where it is unflatteringly baggy, and where a tuck here and a dart there would make a huge difference.

Then they turn to me. Their discerning eyes take in the fit of the jeans and suggest that I go back in and take the plunge, trying on the unrelaxed pair. Even I could tell these fitted me better( and, at 25, they are well within budget, too ). Flushed with success, I longingly touch the cuff on a leather jacket.

Do you like that? Siobhan asks.

Yes, but I dont guess Im that cool.

Try it on!

I slip the coat off the hanger and on to my shoulders. It is well-fitted and the sleeves come to my wrist( the same Amazonian woman who usually wears my sizing jeans usually also has very long limbs ). And heres the thing: I appear awesome.

Suddenly, in the new jeans and leather coat, I get some sense of what my thinner friends must often feel where the fun of shopping comes from looking at something on the rack and transferring some of what induces it cool to themselves. For me, it was a splurge at 55, but what I leave with is so much more that only an outfit

How to shop big

1 Dont forget the basics. If your bra fits properly, then everything else will appear better( try Freya and Panache ).

2 Size is a number , not a moral decision. That number is based on the block( the model are applied to make-up patterns ).

3 Take a friend with you for a second opinion.

4 Online shopping takes away the fitting room nightmare( but you do need some notion of sizing to start from, so take measurements ).

5 Big doesnt mean boring. Try Boohoo, Lindy Bop, SimplyBe, Asos Curve and Collectif.

6 When you find your sizing in each store, make a note of it, so you are confident ordering online.

7 Dont buy things that arent your size or style, for when I lose weight. Shop for what constructs you appear and feel good right now.

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